Karen J. Hutton admits that she hates to lose: “I’m very competitive. I want Hutton to be the best, and I want the client to see me as offering as much or better service than anyone else. That’s my drive every day.”
Hutton started the real estate construction company in 1998 at the age of 38. Drive and tenacity have been key to building her company, which was no easy task for a woman in what, even today, remains a male-dominated industry. “Not seeing perceived barriers or reasons why I couldn’t do things just doesn’t enter my mind,” says Karen.
Hutton earned a business degree from the University of Alabama where she also played on the women’s basketball team. After graduating, she landed a job as a leasing trainee for a mall developer in Houston. She later moved back to her home state and went to work for a shopping center developer leasing centers in Tennessee and North Carolina before going to work for her father’s shopping center development company in Pulaski, Tenn. In that position, she learned all aspects of ground up development, redevelopment, leasing, property management and financing of shopping centers.
That experience gave her the confidence to launch her own firm, and she got an early start bidding on renovations for AutoZone stores across the country. A few years later, her leasing connections helped her get a foot in the door with Dollar General with an agreement to do the company’s ground-up construction for its roll-out in Texas. The first year, Dollar General approved zero sites that she brought to them. “I had a gut feeling that this was an opportunity that I wanted to stay with,” says Karen. During the second year, Dollar General started approving sites and she ended up building 36 stores, followed by another 71 the next year and another 71 after that.
Developing stores for Dollar General was a starting point. Since then, the company has built 1,100 projects in 40 states. The company does development for clients, as well as reverse build-to-suits and build-to-suits that it both owns in its own portfolio or sells to third-party investors. “We also look for entrepreneurial-type QSR franchise companies that are looking to grow where we can go in and be their capital, real estate development arm,” says Karen.
Some of the biggest challenges for new restaurant development these days are rising construction costs, rising interest rates and finding the right sites that fit a brand’s needs as it relates to size, parking requirements, ingress and egress and other factors.
Her advice to restaurants is to choose a developer or general contractor that will be a trusted partner throughout the development process. “The biggest challenge is that operators don’t know what they don’t know. Ground up is very different than retrofitting an existing building,” she says. There are any of number of issues that can come up in development ranging from knowing the soil conditions of the site to navigating city zoning and permitting.
Karen has also focused on building a company culture that believes in philanthropy and simply lending a helping hand when it’s needed within the community. She lends both her personal and corporate support to groups such as The Hunter Museum of American Art and the Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy. “It’s really important for me to help people get out of tough situations,” says Karen.
Source: Restaurant Finance Monitor; Karen Hutton: Developer Puts Tenacity to Work for Her Clients